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A Mystick syllable, signifying the supreme god of gods, which the Hindus, from its awful and sacred meaning, hesitate to pronounce aloud; and, in doing so, place one of their hands before their mouths. “A Brahman beginning or ending a lecture of the Veda (or the recital of any holy strain) must always pronounce, to himself, the syllable O’M ; for unless that syllable precede, his learning will slip away from him; and unless it follow, nothing will be long retained. It is prefixed to the several names of worlds, denoting that the seven worlds are manifestations of the power signified by that syllable.” “All rites ordained in the Veda, oblations to fire, and solemn sacrifices pass away; but that which passeth not away, says Menu, is declared to be the syllable O'm, thus called Aschara, since it is the symbol of God, the Lord of created beings.”
From various passages in the Asiatic Researches, principally by Mr. Colebrooke, as well as other authorities, it may be collected, that this sacred monosyllable, spelt O'm, is pronounced A, O, M, or A, U, M, signifying Brahm, the supreme being, under his three great attributes of the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer; the letters standing, in succession, for the attributes as they are here described.
The gayatri, called by Sir William Jones the mother of the Vedas, and in another place the holiest text of the Vedas, is expressed by the triliteral monosyllable AUM, and means, if I understand it correctly, that divine light of knowledge dispersed by the Almighty, the sun of righteousness, to illumine the minds of created beings. Sir William Jones thus translates it: “Let us adore the supremacy of that divine sun, the godhead who illumines all, delights all, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return, whom we invoke to direct our understandings aright in our progress towards his holy seat.” And in another place he defines that divine sun as “not the visible material sun, but that divine and incomparably greater light, which illumines all, delights all, from whom all proceeds, to which all must return, and which can alone irradiate not our visual organs merely, but our souls and our intellects.” Mr. Colebrooke again explains it: “On that effulgent power which is Brahm himself, and is called the light of the radiant sun, do I meditate, governed by the mysterious light which resides within me for the purpose of thought. I myself am an irradiated manifestation of the supreme Brahm.”
* Asiatic Researches, Vol. v.
These brief extracts may explain as well as volumes, that the fundamental principles of the Hindu religion were those of pure monotheism; the worship of one supreme and only god. Under what circumstances the attributes of that Almighty Being became divided and appropriated to the Hindu Triad, or that the visible, instead of the divine invisible sun became an object of worship, we are left in utter darkness. The one was the hallowed fundamental creed; the other is, unfortunately, the perverted popular practice of the Hindus.
The Vedas are the earliest sacred writings of the Hindus. The first four, called the immortal Vedas, are the Rig or Rish Veda, the Pajar or Yajush Veda, the Sama or Saman Veda, and the Atharva or Atharvana Veda. They comprise various sections, which are again divided and subdivided, under the distinctions of Mantras, Brahmana, Itahasa, Purana, Upanishad, &c. They were reduced to order by Vyasa, and prescribed the moral and religious duties of mankind.
Much has been adduced on these heads by writers whose opinions appear to have differed very widely from each other. The following scattered
observations, from the pen of Mr. Colebrooke, in the Asiatic Researches, will explain in the most simple, clear, and connected light, in which I have been able to discover them, these fundamental principles of the Hindu religion. It is to be observed, that many of the Hindu scriptures are suspected not to have formed parts of the original Veda. “It is well known that the original Veda is believed by the Hindus to have been revealed by Brahma, and to have been preserved by tradition, until it was arranged in its present form by a sage, who thence obtained the surname of Vyasa, or Vedavyasa; that is, compiler of the Vedas. He distributed the Hindu scriptures in the four parts before mentioned. “According to the received notions of the Hindus themselves, it appears that the Rich, Kajush, and Saman, are the three principal portions of the Veda; that the Atharvana is commonly admitted as a fourth; and that divers mythological poems, entitled Itahasa and Puranas, are reckoned a supplement to the scripture, and, as such, constitute a fifth Veda. “The true reason why the three first Vedas are often mentioned without any notice of the fourth, must be sought not in their different origin and antiquity, but in the difference of their use and purport. Prayers employed at solemn rites, called Vajnyas, have been placed in the three principal Vedas. Those which are in prose are named Yajush ; such as are in metre are denominated Rich ; and some, which are intended to be chaunted, are called Saman. But the Atharvana, not being used at the religious ceremonies above mentioned, and containing prayers employed at lustrations, at rites conciliating the deities, and as imprecations on enemies, is essentially different from the other Vedas. “Vyasa having compiled and arranged the scriptures, theogonies, and mythological poems, taught the several Vedas to as many disciples, who, with their scholars in progression becoming teachers, their schools of scriptural knowledge at length amounted to eleven hundred. “From this great being (God) were respired the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda, and the Atharvan and Angiras, the Itahasa and Purana, the sciences and upanishads, the verses and aphorisms, the expositions and illustrations: all these were breathed forth by him.
“Each Veda consists of two parts, denominated the Mantras and the Brahmanas, or prayers and precepts. The complete collection of the hymns, prayers, and invocations, belonging to one Veda, is entitled its Samhita. Every other portion of Indian scripture is included under the general head of Divinity (Brahmana). “There are four sorts of prayers (Mantra), and eight kinds of precepts (Brahmana). The Itahasa designates such passages in the second part of the Vedas entitled Brahmana, as relate a story; the Purana" intends those which relate to the creation and similar topics. Sciences are meant of religious worship; verses are memorial lines; aphorisms are short sentences in a concise style; expositions interpret such sentences and elucidate the meaning of the prayers. Upanishad means divine science, or the knowledge of God, and is equally applicable to theology itself, and to a book in which this science is taught. “The Rishi, or saint of a Mantra, is he by whom it is spoken, or the inspired, or supposed inspired writer; the Devata is the deity to whom it is addressed. These Devatas, or deities, would, upon a cursory view, appear to be numerous; but it is observed that they are resolvable into three Devatas, and ultimately into one God. “The deities are only three, whose places are the earth, the intermediate region, and heaven, viz. fire, air, and the sun; and (Prajapati) the lord of creatures is the deity of them collectively. The syllable O'm intends every deity: it belongs to (Paramesthi) him who dwells in the supreme abode; it appertains to (Brahm) the vast one; to (Deva) God; to (Adhyātma) the superintending soul. Other deities belonging to these several regions are portions of the (three) gods; for they are variously named and described, according to their different operations; but, in fact, there is only one deity, the great soul (Mahamatmá). He is called the sun, for he is the soul of all beings.” This article, with the preceding one, will shew that the Hindu scriptures recognised but one God, though they now admit the worship of him through intermediate objects, which are considered as his attributes, or mani
* There are two descriptions of Puranas. See that article in the third part of this volume.
festations of his power. That many interpolations and alterations have been made by the Brahmans in the original Vedas, which have detracted much from their sacredness and purity, there can be little question; and it may be imagined that those interpolations have introduced, among other things, the many intermediate objects of worship which are now reverenced by the Hindus.
The Brahmans are the first and most distinguished race of the Hindus, mythologically described to have sprung from the head of Brahma; as the Kettries, Vaisyas, and Sudras did from his arms, thighs, and feet. They had, in consequence, the charge of the Vedas assigned to them; and from them only (except as Mr. Ward affirms, among the Yogus, mostly weavers, the Chundalus, and the basket-makers, who have priests of their own castes) can the sacerdotal office be at any time filled; and their influence in that character is almost unbounded. In the sacred writings they are styled divine; and the killing, or entertaining an idea of killing, one of them is so great a crime, that Menu says, “no greater can be known on earth.” A few brief sentences from the institutes of that lawgiver will, however, best shew the veneration in which the Brahmans are held.
“Since the Brahman sprang from the most excellent part, since he was the first born, and since he possesses the Veda, he is by right the chief of this whole creation. “Of created things, the most excellent are those which are animated; of the animated, those which subsist by intelligence; of the intelligent, mankind; and of men, the sacerdotal class.
“Brahmans should be preeminent in learning, virtue, and justice.
“When a Brahman springs to light, he is born above the world, the chief of all creatures, assigned to guard the treasury of duties, religious and civil. “Whatever exists in the universe is in effect, though not in form, the wealth of a Brahman, since the Brahman is entitled to it by primogeniture and eminence of birth.